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The Armenian Revolution in the context of post-Soviet geopolitics

By Francis Shin

In May 2018, a stunning political development occurred in Armenia. After about a month of protests, Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned in a peaceful revolution. Intriguingly, despite the Russian government’s opposition to revolution in the former Soviet region, as well as Russia’s own security interests in Armenia, the Kremlin approved the regime change, announcing its support for the new government. Russia’s unusual response to the Armenian Revolution indicates that its influence has been dwindling ever since sanctions were placed upon it during the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis, and that Russia is still interested in prolonging the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenia’s alliance with Russia is due to its adversarial relationship with Azerbaijan and Turkey. After both Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, they fought bitterly over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Regardless of Armenia’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh and the implementation of a ceasefire, there have been continued border skirmishes, as well as a blockade imposed on Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Consequently, Armenia signed the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty, and pursued close ties with Russia.

However, when “Color Revolutions” swept across some former Soviet states, Russia started to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy towards its neighbors. Each of the Color Revolutions were motivated by a growing resentment towards corrupt elites, many of which had close ties to the Kremlin. Consequently, Russia felt its interests were threatened, and viewed the Color Revolutions as attempts by Western states to increase their influence at the expense of Russia. To counter the revolutions, Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, respectively. These invasions were meant to strengthen Russian influence in those states, while deterring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from accepting Georgia and Ukraine as member-states.

Nevertheless, unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Armenia relies on its alliance with Russia, and because of this reliance, Armenia pursues a policy of cooperation with NATO and the EU only to the extent that it would not anger Russia. For instance, although Armenia maintains good relations with NATO, it has also stated it will not join NATO; similarly, Armenia helped found the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a trade bloc designed to compete with the EU. Yet, there is still friction in Armenia-Russian relations, as Russia has sold Azerbaijan immense arms packages, indicating that Russia intends to play Armenia and Azerbaijan off against each other. Moreover, when a Russian energy corporation hiked prices in Armenia in 2015, Armenian protests against the price changes quickly proliferated. Russian state media attempted to label them as Western attempts at destabilization, despite the protesters not being overtly pro-Western. Eventually, the protests subsided after president Serzh Sargsyan promised the Armenian government would try to keep prices down.

Although Sargsyan stayed in power, he strained his credibility three years later when he tried to become prime minister after the end of his second term as president. Because he was likely going to retain power despite a limit of two presidential terms, the Armenian public began protesting again. The protests became so widespread that Sargsyan’s own Republican Party withdrew their support, warning him that only a state of emergency could save him. They further argued against it, saying it would jeopardize Armenian national security by drawing the military away from the border with Azerbaijan. Consequently, Sargsyan resigned, paving the way for Nikol Pashinyan, the leader of the protests, to become prime minister.

Russia’s restrained response to the Armenian is unusual considering its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, as well as its state media coverage of the 2015 Armenian protests. Sargsyan even requested military support from the Kremlin, which was apparently refused. Accordingly, Russia’s passive response indicates that its military has become significantly weaker since the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis due to the sanctions placed upon it, an issue compounded by how it has been forced to sustain its intervention forces in Syria. Furthermore, Russia values its position as the most influential mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and has carefully ensured that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan gains a significant advantage against the other. By keeping the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict frozen, Russia maintains some influence in the South Caucasus. If Sargsyan declared a state of emergency, it would destabilize Armenia, giving Azerbaijan an advantage and, in turn, would lessen the need for Russia to act as a mediator in the conflict. The Kremlin apparently concluded that ensuring Armenia’s stability meant Sargsyan’s resignation and supporting the new Pashinyan-led government.

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